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This death bed scene

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 October 2017, 5.37pm

We face more death now; but many of us face it less supported by meaning.

We cannot avoid death, even if we wish to.

The death of those we know, and maybe love; but more frequently, celebrity deaths on social media.

Or bombed city deaths on the news…massacre deaths, hurricane deaths.

So much mourning to be done; yet so little meaning to bolster us when our positivity falters, and fear dances into view.

We dare not express sadness at our loss, for sadness is a bottomless well and who will pull us out?

And anyway, there’ll be more deaths tomorrow, plenty of them.

And the last thing we wish to believe is that everything is out of control.

So instead, when someone dies, we celebrate their life…determinedly.

‘He wouldn’t have wanted us to be glum! He’d want us to be having a good laugh today!’

Really? How do you know?

Perhaps we give the dead the lines we want to hear.

‘Release the balloons! And everyone to wear pink!’

Though when I die, I’d like you to be sad for moment, if that is how you feel.

Wear black even…

The thing is, there’s been a changing of the priesthood when it comes to death.

Formerly led by the clergy, who spoke of love, judgement and resurrection, we are now led by the unexamined celebrities who remain.

They tell us what to think and what to feel:

‘A great comic, a great friend.’

‘A musical friend, a friend to music.’

‘An actor of immense talent, a great loss to the industry.’

But then what do we do?

In the absence of meaning, we lay flowers, we emote a little…and move distractedly on.

What else can we do?

‘A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning,’ writes Hilary Mantel.  ‘A room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors.

But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning.’

This loss of meaning comes at an unfortunate time.

Thanks to 24-hour news, we have never been more surrounded by death; and never been less equipped to handle the screaming sense of loss.

Or our terror of non-existence.

Murder mystery, foreign executions, one-way trips to Switzerland, Scandinavian noir, cancer blogs - we’re hungry for the stories, gripped by the gothic darkness, fascinated from our sofas.

But with no hands to catch us when this little life ends, we play out a desperate game of brief grief – hysterical is allowed - and then denial.

‘Wear pink, wear pink!’

There is a rumour, of course; a rather traditional one, I grant you, that death is a beginning, not an end; a continuation of something begun, the drawing back of a veil… it’s possible.

In 1847, as the 54-year-old Henry Francis Lyte approached death, crippled by respiratory disease, he famously wrote from his Brixham parish:

‘Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.’

He wrote from his story, full of faith and illness. But his story is not yours or mine.

So we must each speak with death.

We will speak from our story, befriend the shadows, accept the terror… and come to our own tearful light.

And something is cracked, something released, meaning spills.

And with meaning comes freedom…the freedom to cry or not to cry; to wear pink or to wear black; both to care and not to care.

And with meaning comes no fear.

So we greet death on our way… until death greets us.

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